In Lanford Wilson’s hesitation waltz of a play, “Talley’s Folly,” two outsiders from different sides of the track spar beneath the Missouri moonlight.
On its 1980 Broadway debut, it received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has been a repertory favorite for Jewish theaters around the country for ages.
In fact. Theater J’s latest production, on stage at GALA Hispanic Theatre through Dec. 30, is the third time a Jewish theater has brought it to the Washington region. Its first outing here in 1995 was at the long defunct Washington Jewish Theater at the Rockville Jewish Community Center. In 2003, Theater J produced a luminous version, which Peg Denithorne directed featuring Rick Foucheux and Colleen Delany. Returning to the play under different artistic leadership this month, demonstrates the solidity of its bones.
And yet, clocking in at 97-minutes — lead character Matt informs the audience of the running time right off the bat — the talky two-hander feels longer and, unfortunately, dated.
Playwright Wilson, a master of natural lyricism, was not Jewish, but in the character of Matt Friedman he gently revealed a mid-20th-century trope — the wandering Jew, on outsider beset by the rise of European anti-Semitism and forced to flee, crossing border after border, before settling in the United States, where he remains suspicious.
His foil is Sally Talley, a nurse and union supporter. At 31 she remains single — a spinster — and in 1944, when Wilson set the play, that was unheard of.
As Matt, John Taylor cuts a dashing figure in his brown suit and fedora, but it’s his smooth talk and sarcastic manner that make him both irresistible and infuriating for Sally, played with a testy edge by Erin Weaver. She seems initially a plain-spun, salt-of-the-earth woman, in her teal cardigan and simple belted dress (Kendra Rai’s costumes are notably non-descript).
But soon enough, Weaver peels back layers revealing a character with a strongly independent streak, even as she worries about the “what will my family think” criticisms she has faced for years, this time in bringing a big city Jewish accountant to the house.
Matt isn’t exactly a good catch in the eyes of the wealthy, factory-owning Talley family. In fact, Sally notes her family considers him a Communist, as bad as that liberal Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.
That Sally is being courted by a Jew — an outsider — is simply unacceptable for this conservative Midwestern family.
The scenery, a dilapidated riverside boathouse virtually becomes a character. The weathered planks of this once grand boathouse with Victorian touches — thus the folly of the title —including a decaying gazebo by designer Paige Hathaway cluttered with detritus makes this moonlight meeting memorable. Alas, Jesse Belsky’s lights don’t do the moonrise justice.
What resonates most in director Aaron Posner’s production is the sharp repartee — Wilson was a master at the quip and the snappy rejoinder — along with the fierce independence and intelligence displayed by both performers. Initially they scuffle verbally, voices and emotions rise and the dialogue shifts from a smooth waltz-like rhythm to a more temperamental tango — there’s an approach, parrying and a retreat as the pair nudge one another to bare hidden personal histories, while cautiously considering connecting.
What’s missing though are any real fireworks — like those across the river, Sally noted. The verbal sparks do, indeed, fly but they don’t ignite a deeper passion among these two lonely characters.
While the pull Sally has for Matt is scripted, she doesn’t capitulate easily and it feels like the entire dance of attraction will end in a draw.
That Theater J has chosen to revisit this play, introduces it to a new generation — the 1980 Broadway run starred Judd Hirsch — but it’s hard to imagine 20- and 30-somethings taking to what was considered a “late-in-life” romance between a 31-year-old and a 42-year-old.
While “Talley’s Folly” is nearing modern classic status, it feels old-fashioned and outmoded, played out sepia-tones rather than high definition. It’s a look back, but will its uncertain waltz speak to a new generation?
“Talley’s Folly,” through Dec. 30; produced by Theater J at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St., NW, Washington; tickets: $34-$64; visit theaterj.org or call 202-777-3210.